Book Review: The Simpsons and Their Mathematical Secrets by Simon Singh

First he studied quarks. Then he battled quacks. Now he looks at quirks.

From the outset, one gets the impression that this was great fun to write. Maybe it was even more fun to write than it was to read. The basic premise is that a lot of the scriptwriters of The Simpsons are highly scientifically literate and that throughout the many years that the show has been broadcast there have been a number of gags that rely on an understanding of maths.

Singh has spoken to a number of the creators of The Simpsons in order to ascertain whether the theories of some of the earliest discussion boards on the internet, like some UseNet groups were right when they analyzed various episodes, as well as to get an insight into the creative process that goes into creating one of the most successful television programmes of the last 25 years.

What then proceeds is an exploration of some of the more fun aspects of maths. Those who have read a lot of recreational maths may struggle to find much that is new here, but what is presented is done so clearly, with great humour and evident enthusiasm. One will not be surprised to find discussions here on prime numbers, pi and Fermat’s last theorem. To those familiar with the concepts, this is like meeting an old friend in a bar. You may have heard their stories before, but they are fun to be around nonetheless.

For me, one of the most interesting chapters was on sports statistics. I’ve been aware for some time that some sports teams have used statisticians to try to bolster their results, but have had little more insight than that. Singh gives us a nice overview of the subject here, under the heading of ‘sabermetrics‘.

Some of the links between the maths and The Simpsons can be a bit tenuous at times. Some other reviewers have commented on this, but I wouldn’t be too critical on this point. The book is more about maths than The Simpsons, with the latter being a springboard from which Singh dives; and rather elegantly at that.

Yet The Simpsons isn’t the only springboard used. Approximately 2/3rds of the way through, we start to look at another of Matt Groening’s creations, Futurama. The book, though, keeps the same format and uses this to look at a greater range of issues, which was possible because Futurama was ostensibly more sci-fi than The Simpsons.

In this part of the book, we get treated to one of my favourite tales from the history of modern maths: the meeting of G. H. Hardy and Srinivasa Ramanujan, talking about 1,729 (though Singh fails to note that if you get hold of a mathematician’s debit or credit card, 1729 would be a good guess for the PIN!). If you haven’t heard of those two people or the number 1,729 means nothing to you, then please do buy this book.

Although the book is excellent, it does have a few flaws. It triggers one of my pet hates of using what is euphemistically known as ‘American spelling’ or in more plain terms, it is littered with typos. Though the subject is an American show, it is written by an English author with an English publisher, so one would have hoped for correct spellings. Though that might be levelled at the book’s editor, there is one critique for the author, and that is a bizarre dichotomy he tries to draw between science and maths, as though the two were somehow different disciplines. One might demonstrate with this quote from page 45: “…scientists have to cope with reality and all its imperfections and demands, whereas mathematicians practice their craft in an ideal abstract world.” As a mathematician, this is a view I profoundly disagree with, not least given the very simple fact that mathematics departments are typically located with the faculty of science at any university. It was certainly was at my alma mater, where I recall Simon Singh once gave a guest lecture while I was an undergraduate.

I’ve followed the fortunes of Simon Singh for a few years now. His books on Fermat’s Last Theorem (which crops up here) and on code breaking have both proved popular and critical successes. In recent years though he has been the subject of libel proceedings and has become something of a world-weary figure after his long legal battle with the British Chiropractic Association and his subsequent work in libel reform. Early on in the book I got the impression that this was a book to signal that he had moved on and was now back to enjoying work and that this was a breath of fresh air. This impression was deepened after a sly reference at the start of the book notably using the word ‘bogus’ that had gotten him into so much trouble in the first place. If there was any doubt, though, it would be thoroughly dispelled in the acknowledgements at the end of the book where he takes time and space to thank those who have supported him and his campaigns.

It’s a coda which indicates the more serious aspects of science to which the main content of the book is the joyous, trivial flipside. I look forward to seeing what he writes next. If it is as good as The Simpsons and their Mathematical Secrets, it will be well worth a read.

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